You’d be hard-pressed to find a more divisive game director than Hideo Kojima. To some, he’s an unrivalled genius now unshackled for the first time since his falling out with Konami. To others, he’s a self-indulgent, overrated, problematic hack. Death Stranding is his latest project, an enigmatic prospect ever since our first look at a nude Norman Reedus cradling a baby on a beach. The discourse surrounding this game and its director has been ferocious for years at this point, and yet the game is now in our hands at last. So what is Death Stranding?
At its core Death Stranding is a third-person, open-world action game. There is shooting, but it makes up a tiny portion of the 40 or so hours you’ll spend completing the story. Instead, Death Stranding is about traversal. Getting from A to B as efficiently and safely as possible. Of course, it’s not as simple as just pointing the analog stick in the direction you want to go, but before we get too bogged down in what you’ll do, let me give you a rundown of why you’ll be doing it.
Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) is a quintessential reluctant hero who just wants to deliver his parcels to folk in post-apocalypse America. The world has been ravaged by the Death Stranding, some kind of enormously destructive event that left the whole world disconnected and on the brink of extinction. There are survivors making do in bunkers, invisible spectres plaguing the landscape, and terrorist groups looking to finish what the Death Stranding started. Sam is tasked by the delivery organisation Bridges to “make America whole again” (this is said verbatim many times throughout the game) by trekking across what remains of America and convincing everyone to hook up to the Chiral Network, a sort of magical internet that allows for physical objects to be printed in the environment (among many other story-related things).
Death Stranding’s story is… not it’s strong suit. It’s unapologetically Kojima: camp, nonsensical at times, always prioritising style-over-substance, breaks the fourth wall with glee and dumps exposition inorganically and without mercy. The characters are similarly (and familiarly) unappealing. Norman Reedus as Sam is rather cliched – he doesn’t give a damn about America and yet he’s the only one who can save it. Amelie (Emily O’Brien), the president’s daughter and the end goal of Sam’s trek, is austere and vague, clearly withholding disappointing answers to the game’s biggest questions. Fragile (Lea Seydoux) has a bit more personality and characterisation, but it’s sporadic at best and she all but disappears in the latter half of the game.
There were two characters I did like. One was Mama (Margaret Qualley), Sam’s tech adviser and one of the only people to actually feel like a living, breathing human instead of just an exposition robot, and Higgs (Troy Baker) the leader of the terrorist group trying to bring about a second apocalypse. Troy, in particular, seems to be having a blast with the role, which is good because the character itself is Kojima-cheese through and through.
Rounding out the cast are the aforementioned exposition robots: Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins), Heartman (Darren Jacobs) and Deadman (Jesse Corti). Their names all have a logic to them, but I can guarantee you it’s dumb as hell and will be painstakingly explained over multiple cutscenes. This problem – the over-explanation of uncomplicated concepts – is bizarre. There’s seriously several conversations and documents about twins who share a mysterious connection as if Death Stranding is the first piece of fiction to ever explore such a thing.
So is this game just a pile of garbage? Does Death Stranding manage to do anything right? Well, yes, as it turns out, I actually kinda loved this game.
The bread and butter of Death Stranding, actually getting from one outpost to another, will see you weathering rain and blizzards, crossing rocky terrain, fording deep rivers, and battling (or avoiding) cargo-crazed gangs and spectres from another dimension. Ensuring that Sam doesn’t slip or trip is a constant battle and damaging your cargo is pretty easy to do. Rivers carry packages away on the current, Sam’s boots gradually wear out, he will tire more easily if he goes for long periods without resting and staying out in the timefall – rain that ages anything it touches – damages both your cargo and gear.
Having to contend with all these elements turns each of these journeys into its own little puzzle. Expeditions that need to be planned, mapped out and prepared for. In this way Death Stranding reminded me of the Total War and Civilisation games: you need to strategise several steps ahead. Where is the river at its narrowest? How steep is this cliff, would it be quicker to go around it? Should I bring a ladder or rope, just in case? Is this stretch of land accessible to vehicles? Once you answer all these questions, you stock up with tools and your quarry and set out into the wilderness.
And what a beautiful wilderness it is. The scale of this world is unprecedented. Not so much in its total surface area but rather in how the landscape’s proportions feel far more realistic than other games. Climbing a mountain actually feels like climbing a damn mountain. The view distance, highly detailed textures of moss and stones and particle effects of rain and snow all combine to enhance the feeling of trekking through difficult terrain.
The sense of satisfaction upon reaching your destination, connecting the hub up to the Chiral Network and then seeing all the signs and structures left by other players pop up, is immense. What was once an isolated, daunting and dangerous environment begins to feel comfortable and welcoming.
And this is Death Stranding at it’s most basic level. There’s an incredibly deep web of systems and mechanics that unfold at a finely tuned pace. There was a solid chunk in the middle of the game where it felt like I was unlocking some new tool, weapon or crafting recipe every 30 minutes. Getting a new toy always felt like an achievement, as it would always be legitimately useful and make getting around far easier.
Before long you’ll be able to repair roads, place zip-lines, build generators, bridges, postboxes and other structures in order to help yourself and others. There’s this terrific feeling of progression purely from observing how the landscape changes over time. What was at first arduous loses its friction. It really does feel like you’re part of a huge collective, all exploring the same vast land and working together to make things better.
I would have happily spent the entirety of this game connecting up highways and sailing between mountain peaks on zip-lines, but unfortunately, there are a number of shoehorned story sequences that are a real drag. Not only did they fail to captivate from a narrative or character point of view, but they’re also the only parts of the game that require shooting. Given the shooting is just not all that good, mechanically, and that your cargo sort of gets in the way and Sam can get stuck on geometry, these sections were always tedious and frustrating. They were at least brief, unlike the ending.
The last few hours of Death Stranding are made up of a series of long, unearned climaxes that fall utterly flat. The music soars, the actors cry their eyes out and yet it’s all built on such a flimsy foundation of nonsense that it totally fails to resonate. The finale acts as if you’ve spent a couple of seasons of well-written TV with these characters, instead of a smattering of sporadic, stilted conversations spread out infrequently over 40-50 hours of sublime mountain climbing and river fording. There’s incomprehensible explanations to uninteresting questions, meaningless twists and three (THREE!) credit sequences, two of which inexplicably play back to back.
Death Stranding is certainly outside the box. It tries something altogether different to the vast majority of AAA open-world games and largely succeeds. It’s a game made for anyone who has ever seen a mountain or forest or river and suddenly had a strong desire to leave the office or pull over the car and just pick a spot and see if you can get there. It’s just a shame that the revolutionary and extraordinarily ambitious gameplay core of Death Stranding is dragged so far down by the frustrating story, self-indulgent dialogue and robotic characters.